The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

eugenides_virgin.jpgThe Virgin Suicides is the second novel I've read in recent months written in the unusual first-person singular ("we"), after Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. In that book, "we" represented the homogenization and de-personalization of modern office culture. Here, Eugenides uses it to depict the shared memory and investigation of a group of men, now middle-aged, exploring a 13-month period in their teenage lives in which the five daughters of a neighborhood family all committed suicide:

Only one boy had ever been allowed in the house. Peter Sissen had helped Mr. Lisbon install a working model of the solar system in his classroom at school, and in return Mr. Lisbon had invited him for dinner. He told us the girls had kicked him continually under the table, from every direction, so that he couldn't tell who was doing it.

Set in the American suburbs of the 1970s, The Virgin Suicides opens with a reference to the final suicide, Mary, before returning to the event that started it all: the attempted wrist-cutting suicide of the youngest daughter, Cecilia. It is Cecilia's successful suicide, committed several weeks later during a party while her family and the neighborhood boys were in the basement, that haunts the book. The daughters do not drop one by one; instead the whole family begins to recede from the habits of daily suburban life, eventually holing themselves up completely in a house that goes uncleaned, unwashed, and unvisited:

No one ventured to the house anymore, not any of our mothers or fathers, not the priest; and even the mailman, rather than touching the mailbox, lifted the lid with the spine of Mrs. Eugene's Family Circle. Now the soft decay of the house began to show up more clearly. We noticed now tattered the curtains had become, then realized we weren't looking at curtains at all but at a film of dirt, with spy holes wiped clean. The best thing was to see them make one: the pink heel of a hand flattening against the glass, then rubbing back and forth to uncover the bright mosaic of an eye, looking out as us. Also, the gutters sagged.

Throughout this descent, the neighborhood boys grow more and more obsessed with the Lisbon daughters; they come to view them (collectively, as they admit being unable to distinguish between the girls at several points) as the very symbol of feminine mystery. There are a variety of attempts to breach the defenses placed by the Lisbon parents, starting with local teenage playboy Trip Fontaine's quest to date Lux, the youngest remaining sister. He finally succeeds in convincing Mr. Lisbon to approve her attendance at the Homecoming dance, on the condition that the other girls accompany them:

That was how a few of us came to take the girls on the only unchaperoned date they ever had. As soon as he left Mr. Lisbon's classroom, Trip Fontaine began assembling his team. At football practice that afternoon, during wind sprints, he said, "I'm taking Lux Lisbon to Homecoming. All I need is three guys for the other chicks. Who's it going to be?" Running twenty-yard intervals, gasping for breath, in clumsy pads and unclean athletic socks, we each tried to convince Trip Fontaine to pick us.

As the year comes to a close, and final suicides are played out, the intense obsession settles into a lifelong haunting. It is the Lisbon girls who are permanently etched as the female archetype, and it is through subsequent evidence-gathering and interviews in later years that the collective narrators have pieced together the story they present.

One of the novel's difficulties is how little is ever revealed about the Lisbon girls beyond the conjecture of the neighborhood. This is surely intentional; among the books themes are the unbridgeable distances between individuals, the enigma of the opposite sex, and the unreliability of accepted gossip. Yet by keeping the collective narrators at arm's length, the reader can get no closer. And in a book that works hard to subvert the expected, Eugenides gave the Libson daughters two caricatures for parents: a kindly but befuddled father who can't connect with his band of female offspring, and a cold, priggish mother who stunts their every attempt at independence. More provocative than evocative, the novel just never quite connected.